An ominous number

Ivan Radocaj, left, in a dated picture. (The Great Canadian Talk Show Podcast)

When Rita Cushnie showed up at the RCMP detachment nearly four years ago and was interviewed in regards to the killing of John Radocaj, she had exactly $1.87 in her purse.

Over the four-year life of the criminal case, she reported to RCMP for bail management exactly 187 times, her lawyer, Mike Cook told Justice Colleen Suche last night.

It was a coincidence revealed just before Suche handed the 57-year-old a life sentence without parole for 25 years after a jury convicted her of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder.

One-Eight-Seven: The cold irony for Cushnie, I guess, exists in how those digits have also been co-opted by the gangster underworld as a kind of shorthand for the crime of murder.

The slang use stems from the California Penal Code, where capital murder with malice falls under section 187 (a).

Winnipeg has already woken up to the news that Cushnie, her (former?) friend Melody Sanford and her son, Donald Richard were found guilty of the brutal murder of the man once known as “The Croatian Giant” in the wrestler’s ring.

I’m told it’s been a number of years since Radocaj — a large man standing 6’ 8” — ever stepped into the fray. Since the late ‘80’s.

As it is with the media, the ‘ former pro wrestler’ angle became a kind of thin trope to familiarize the public with the case and try to keep their interest (mea culpa).

But at the end of the day, ‘Big John’s’ murder had nothing to do with the faded glare of the spotlight or past athletic acclaim.

Instead, what I can surmise is that Radocaj was just a man who was duped into possibly believing he could have a second chance at love with a woman he had known for years who clearly now hated him for some still-unknown reason.

That’s the story of this trial that largely went untold.

As always, the “why” is elusive when it comes to crime and trials. For prosecutors, the “why” is seldom a question worth delving into, because that’s not really the job. The “who,” “when” and “how” are all that’s needed to secure a conviction, it seems.

It’s probably safe to say Radocaj’s belief in redemption cost him his life in the most brutal way.

A life lost for the promise of a few (and I do mean but a few) bucks and a TV set.

His estranged wife, Sanford and Richard (The orchestrator and executioner) each had the insight to recognize early on that they were culpable in the man’s death.

Their lawyers even admitted as much in closing arguments where they each said in open court manslaughter convictions were probably a foregone conclusion.

In Cushnie’s case, however, she had the most to lose, and obviously felt she was sucked into to something that spun out of any sort of control she may have had over things.

From @deanatwpgsun’s story about the verdict coming down:

Cushnie appeared to break down prior to the jury entering the courtroom. Once the verdict was delivered and the jury had left the room, her tears turned to rage.

“Look what you did to me you little bastard,” Cushnie said while looking at her son as sheriff’s officers moved to handcuff her. “You’re dead to me.”

As the public were escorted out of the gallery and Cushnie was taken into custody for the first time since her arrest, her anxiety spilled over.

“No!” the elderly and frail-looking woman exclaimed, apparently in sheer fright as the female Sheriff approached with the handcuffs.

“Stop it,” the Sheriff barked back at her.

To her credit, Cushnie was the only one of the trio who addressed Radocaj’s grieving mother directly prior to being sentenced:

“I didn’t encourage him,” she said, an obvious reference to her son.

“I feel for you as a mother.”

If her conviction is ultimately upheld (I’d expect a swift appeal) she won’t be eligible for parole until age 82.

Other notes:

At least two jurors — one in particular — were visibly distraught as their decision was read by the foreman last night. By my count, all but two stayed for the sentencing portion and reading of the victim impact statements.

From behind the jury room door upon their exit, loud sobbing could be heard.

Justice Suche declined a request from the defence to poll the individual jurors as to the unanimity of their decision.

It’s in her discretion to do so, and she stated she had no reason to question the verdict.

The decision sparked a short exchange between her and John McAmmond (Richard’s lawyer), who seemed adamant to put the discomfort of the two jurors on the record.

Just moments before the jury portion of the trial got underway roughly two weeks ago, the defence rose to raise a point.

Radocaj’s mother had come to court wearing a photo of her son and either a shirt or a sign stating “Justice for Ivan.”

Suche ordered her to cover it up prior to the jury seeing it, deeming it prejudicial.

I point readers of this blog to this curious story I wrote regarding the case dating back to May 2009.

Even at that time, Sanford was ready to accept responsibility for the conspiracy, possibly explaining the resigned expression she wore during much of the trial that I was able to witness.

From what ever could tell, no abuse of process argument went forward from her lawyers, or it was done in the background.

But we’ll never know what piece of evidence came in that changed the Crown’s position to charge her with the actual killing more than a year after the conspiracy charge was laid.

There are two other accused in the case that have yet to deal with their charges.

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R. v Sanford, Cushnie and Richard – Trial notebook pt. 1

Obviously, I can’t be in court for every moment of testimony in this serious case, but will update this notebook as I go.

For those not in the know: Ivan Radocaj, 43, was killed in his isolated home near Inwood, Manitoba in September 2007. While he wasn’t found until the 14th of the month, police allege he was killed two days prior. Radocaj was a 6′ 8″ tall man who was well-known as a pro wrestler some years ago under the names “The Croatian Giant” or Big John Radocaj. I have no picture to offer of the man, but if there’s one out there, please send it my way.

In 2008: RCMP came forward with charges against his ex-wife, Melody Sanford, 47. Later, others, including Rita Cushnie, 57, and Donald Richard, 35, were authorized. Sanford and Cushnie are friends. Richard is Cushnie’s son.

Chris Houle and Dan Richard are dealing with their charges in separate proceedings, jurors were told.

Sanford, Cushnie and Richard pleaded not guilty today in front of a six-man, six-woman jury to first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. They are presumed innocent.

Notes to supplement mainstream media accounts: (Here, here and here)

The jurors hearing the case appear to skew younger than many panels I’ve seen. Many appear to be in their early 30’s, some younger. When they were handed autopsy and crime scene photo booklets today, I watched them for any reaction. To be honest, they betrayed no overt responses.

The QB judge presiding over the case is Justice Colleen Suche.

Crown Attorneys Mark Kantor and Brian Bell — Bell being fresh off the Mark Grant trial from earlier in the year — are the prosecutors.

Ryan Amy is acting for Sanford, John McAmmond for Richard and Mike Cook for Cushnie. All experienced criminal defence lawyers.

Mark Kantor delivered the Crown’s opening to the jury, it was measured and largely dispassionate in simply noting how the progression of witnesses will go [more on this below].

However, his and Bell’s styles are very different and Kantor is certainly more animated than his counterpart. It’s a similar pairing as was in the Grant prosecution, where Mike Himmelman was the one delivering the opening – pointing red-faced at the prisoner’s dock saying the jury would have no trouble finding Grant guilty of murder. In the end, jurors did, but of second, not first-degree.

The prosecution witnesses:

  1. Dr. John Younes, a pathologist who conducted the autopsy in the case.
  2. Cpl. David Chalmers, an RCMP forensic identification officer; expected to testify about notebooks he was given that contained diagrams of Radocaj’s home and a fingerprint belonging to Sanford.
  3. A friend of Radoaj who found his body on Sept. 14, 2007.
  4. A friend of Sanford’s who the Crown says is expected to testify about comments allegedly made on her wedding day where she expressed reluctance to get married.
  5. Another friend of Sanfords who is expected to testify Sanford allegedly made comments about “hiring a hitman.”
  6. Sanford’s daughter, who is expected to testify about the relationship about Sanford and Radocaj.
  7. Tim Richard, Donald’s cousin: is expected to testify he attended a number of meetings where the conspiracy was discussed; that Sanford allegedly got Radocaj out of his house to go to dinner while three others would go there and lay in wait for him to return. The cousin is expected to tell jurors he drove the getaway car and saw the alleged attackers leave with a TV set.
  8. An associate of Richards, expected to testify that he made comments regarding his involvement in the crime.
  9. An RCMP analyst to speak about phone records seized regarding the time frame of 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. on the date police say Radocaj died.
  10. Melody Sanford’s statement to police.
  11. Donald Richard’s statement to police.

First in the witness stand was Dr. Younes, who testified about the injuries Radocaj had sustained. As an aside, according to Younes, Radocaj suffered from “fairly advanced” emphysema. At the time he died, he was wearing jeans from which a pack of smokes was found and “light weather” clothing.

Younes stated of the eight head injuries he found, five he’d consider to be “major” or “significant.” These included a 14×9 cm abrasion to the right side of Radocaj’s face and a “penetrating injury” to his right forehead, described by him as “a very powerful blow inflicted with a weapon of some kind.” There was another large injury on the top of his head and the large man suffered a “shattered” brain base.

As Younes described the injuries, Sanford sat with her head cradled in one hand, her reddish hair covering her face as to make her reaction unknown. Richard stared straight ahead, as did Cushnie.

Radocaj had what Younes suggested could be defensive wounds on his left arm and wrist, as if he had tried to shield himself from blows.

The weapon used, said Younes, was a “bar of some kind,” not likely a bat because there would be more bruising.

Second on the stand was Cpl. Chalmers, who was called to the crime scene to photograph it on the date Radocaj was found. 27 photos were presented to the jury, four of them Chalmers didn’t take himself.

Key points of his testimony were that an entrance door to Radocaj’s home appeared to have been “forced inward from the outside,” but he could find no tool marks to indicate it had been pried open.

Radocaj was found face up in a cluttered area of the home, which was disheveled in parts. In the bedroom, the posters from the bed had been knocked to the floor, and the mattress was out of place.

Photos 23 and 23a were taken after the crime scene investigation, they are of notebooks given to him on March 6, 2008.

Fingerprints belonging to a Tim Richard were found inside, along with one of Sanford’s when he compared them to RCMP records, he testified.

Jurors have been told to expect three weeks of testimony.

Radocaj’s parents and other supporters were present in court today.

More to come.

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